Fires burn in southern Parndana town as another heatwave, expected to bring renewed misery, sets in. Scientists warn carbon emissions from ongoing blazes are now nearly at par with those caused by fires in Amazon rainforest in 2019.

A supplied image obtained on January 8, 2020 shows Country Fire Authority strike teams performing controlled burning west of Corryong, Victoria, Australia. January 7, 2020.
A supplied image obtained on January 8, 2020 shows Country Fire Authority strike teams performing controlled burning west of Corryong, Victoria, Australia. January 7, 2020. (Reuters)

Bushfires flared in southern Australia on Thursday as a heatwave expected to bring renewed misery set in, and officials warned some areas are "just at the beginning" of the devastating crisis.

Soldiers went door-to-door advising residents to leave the southern Australian town of Parndana on Kangaroo Island after a large blaze bore down on the area, with temperatures there soaring to 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit).

That came less than 24 hours after police evacuated the picturesque island's Vivonne Bay community, which by Thursday afternoon was also being threatened by fires that were expected to burn for days to come.

"The conditions are such that it is continuing to present a significant risk to the firefighters who are working hard to control the fires, and to anyone else in the vicinity," Country Fire Service chief Mark Jones said.

In neighbouring Victoria state, officials extended a "state of disaster" declaration for a further 48 hours ahead of scorching temperatures that were due to set in Friday, further stoking massive fires.

"It's a very dangerous and dynamic situation that will confront us over the next 12, 24 and 36 hours," Victoria Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp said.

Bushfire may have killed 1.25 billion animals

The catastrophic bushfires have killed at least 26 people, destroyed more than 2,000 homes and scorched some eight million hectares (80,000 square kilometres) –– an area the size of the island of Ireland.

Scientists say the drought-fuelled blazes are being worsened by the climate crisis, which is increasing the length and intensity of Australia's fire season.

Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews warned residents to brace for further devastation in what has already been a months-long crisis.

"We're just at the beginning of what will be a really, really challenging summer," he said.

World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Australia said in a statement on Tuesday the bushfires estimated to have killed 1.25 billion animals and burned over 20 million acres of area in the country.

"Around 1.25 billion animals may have been killed directly or indirectly from fires that have burnt 8.4 million hectares [over 20 million acres] across Australia, equivalent to the whole of the country of Austria," it said.

'Only takes a spark to start a fire'

Despite cooler weather and rainfall providing some relief in some bushfire-affected areas this week, almost 150 fires were still burning in worst-hit New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria, the huge continent's most populated regions.

Vast tracts of the states are facing "severe" fire danger on Friday, with some areas expected to experience "extreme" conditions.

"Don't get complacent with the rain that we've seen," Victoria police minister Lisa Neville said.

"These fires are absolutely still moving, still growing in our landscape and they pose significant risk to communities."

Firefighters have been taking advantage of this week's milder weather as they race to contain bushfires ahead of Friday.

They have been clearing vegetation and carrying out controlled burns in an effort to protect areas like the coastal town of Eden, where a large bushfire is burning to the south.

"It only takes a spark to get a fire burning, and that's our concern for tomorrow," Rural Fire Service superintendent John Cullen told a local council briefing.

The Rural Fire Service said a helicopter pilot who had been waterbombing a fire in the area ditched his aircraft into a dam Thursday afternoon, managing to free himself and swim to shore.

Hottest ever year

In some burnt-out areas, people have turned to the painful task of rebuilding their homes and lives, with the process expected to take years.

NSW announced on Thursday it would spend US$680 million on restoring infrastructure in fire-ravaged areas. That comes on top of a separate $1.4 billion national recovery fund earmarked to help devastated communities.

"We are always standing shoulder-to-shoulder with those who have been impacted by the devastating fires, this catastrophe which has come to New South Wales and we are stepping up to make sure we provide that support," NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said.

The bushfire toll has not been limited to human or animal losses –– the blazes have also wreaked wide-ranging environmental damage.

Bushfire smoke has shrouded Australia's major cities in a toxic haze for weeks, causing major public health concerns.

The smoke has also travelled more than 12,000 kilometres to Brazil and Argentina, according to weather authorities there.

Australia experienced its driest and hottest year on record in 2019, with its highest average maximum temperature of 41.9 degrees Celsius recorded in mid-December.

Carbon emissions near Amazon fire levels

Climate-heating emissions from Australia's devastating bushfires are now nearly on a par with those caused by fires in the Amazon rainforest last year, scientists have calculated.

Australia's bushfires, from September to January 6, emitted 370 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, according to the European Union's ECMWF Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS).

By comparison, fires from Brazilian states in the Amazon Basin, which sparked global attention, emitted 392 million tonnes of greenhouse gases from January 1 to November 15 last year.

"People are not grasping the carbon consequences," Joe Fontaine, a lecturer in environmental science at Murdoch University in Perth, said of the Australian fires.

The estimate of their carbon emissions "is sobering and depressing", he said.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies